These years are rough, no doubt, with both students and faculty altering daily life in order to survive the pandemic—and grieving those who didn’t. While many challenges are novel, and hopefully temporary, one is perennial: the student excuse. Faculty may see student excuses as annoying time-drains that divert from the real work of education and moral formation. In fact, dealing with excuses and the students who generate them is central to our purpose at Christian colleges and universities, as much for faculty as for students.
Please tell me if I’m the only one who hears these excuses, mostly within hours of a deadline involving a grade: the printer broke; the printer is out of paper; I don’t know where the printer is; you’re the only professor who makes us print things; my laptop became strangely hot and then stopped working; I forgot to hit send; my car was stolen with my laptop in the trunk and I didn’t save my work anywhere else; I have a headache; I am texting you from the bathroom where I am highly indisposed; I have gone into seclusion for reasons I can’t explain to you; I have cramps; I have menstruation with very particular qualities which perhaps you have also experienced; you lost my email; you don’t like email so I couldn’t tell you ahead of time; I seem to be allergic to something I can’t identify; my best friend went to the ER; my parent is in crisis; my grandparent has passed away; my childhood pet has died; my boyfriend upset me so much that I cried all night and slept through the test.
My strategies for responding are equally abundant: I believe all; I believe none; I seek additional detail; I offer prayer; I extend deadlines; I don’t extend deadlines; I add policies to the syllabus, sometimes odd ones such as “Assume every printer will be broken one hour before the paper is due”; I try new apps and digital solutions; I cry; I bring it to department meetings; I complain about students individually; I complain about them generationally; I blame myself for having bad boundaries; I wonder if I get more of this because I’m a woman; I conclude that I do, in fact, get more of this because I’m a woman; I pray that my car will be stolen with my work laptop in the trunk so it will all just go away.
Some strategies work some of the time, but none offers a perfect solution. More importantly, some reflect theological missteps. Believing all excuses implies that humans are capable of never sinning, but of course even at Christian colleges, students try to get away with things. It’s simply human nature, and faculty are moral equals with students in that regard. I know for certain that one student’s laptop did not heat up and stop working minutes before the deadline. I saw the laptop in question, and we discussed the situation unto oblivion.
Receiving excuses with suspicion—disbelieving by default—is equally problematic. Sin is not the sum total of our nature; students often tell the truth, and often suffer calamity at inopportune times. I know for certain that the car with the laptop in the trunk really was stolen. The student started over from scratch, writing a 25-page senior thesis, and didn’t ask for an extension. She just wanted me to hear her story, witness her emotion, and help her start over.
If we neither believe all nor disbelieve all, we’re left in the position of King Solomon, needing to adjudicate. In a dream, Solomon asked God for a discerning heart and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.1 God granted his request, which was soon put into practice when two women came to Solomon, each claiming that a baby belonged to her.2
Faculty receive petitions dramatic in their own way. Students often share intensely human stories with depersonalized means (words on screens), with minutes to spare before a deadline. It’s simply impossible for us to really know what happened in a time and place where we were not present, and for which there is no evidence. To make things worse, when professors work with limited to no margin, time spent handling cases with discretion, respect, and wisdom comes out of our family time or our sleep, which diminishes our capacity at both work and home.
Nonetheless, each student excuse is a spiritual opportunity for both students and professors. Christ didn’t lie or cheat; the invitation to untruthful students is honor. Christ cared for himself and those he loved; there’s another invitation to truthful students, to care for self and others with dignity, resilience, and responsibility. That’s a lot of virtue to cultivate and express, especially while feeling poorly due to sickness or calamity, or while experiencing temptation when facing a task for which one is unprepared.
Lest we focus overly on the speck in our students’ eyes, let’s consider the log in our own. Like Solomon, we may need to ask God for discernment, the ability to make distinctions among excuses. We may need to cultivate patience, self-control, mercy, or kindness. Whether or not the student or anyone else notices or appreciates it, the eternal value and true power of these virtues shines, reflecting the glory of their divine source. This light cannot be overcome by the powers of this age that bear down on higher education: efficiency, expediency, profit, and bureaucracy. When we take up this challenge, we participate in the mission of our colleges, the common life of Christian formation in which we and students strive together to be more like Christ.
Cultivation of virtue happens through everyday interactions between faculty and students and in quotidian spiritual practices such as prayer and church participation—the ordinary rhythms of the Christian life that shape us into the kinds of persons that can weather deadline stress, life crises, aches and pains, the temptation to cheat or deceive, and the work of responding to all of the above. In this regard, faculty judgment about the veracity of a student excuse isn’t the most important issue. The student, as a person, is central, coming into our lives as a gift for us to receive and to engage meaningfully and spiritually, whatever they may bring to us, and however successfully we adjudicate limited evidence in a pressured situation.
This may all be well and good, but an important question remains: Can the student have an extension because the printer was broken?
In my mind’s eye, I become King Solomon before the two women and the baby. With sword raised over the printer, I proclaim, “I’ll cut it in two and we’ll see if your paper is in the queue!” This scenario always ends the same way, with Human Resources detailing the problems associated with swords, proclamations of an aggressive nature, and destruction of university property.
I’m genuinely uncertain about how to translate Solomon’s wisdom into the predicament of the modern professor. I’d like to have a repertoire of responses so equanimous that they would clearly reveal truth and a path forward. I’d like a technique for having charge of so many students at a time. I’d like another for responding to highly personal information that comes to me in emails from students whose faces I can’t picture. And one more for handling the impatience, frustration, self-doubt, and hopelessness that rise up in me, strong responses that hinder me from rightly occupying the seat of judgment like one of the good kings of old.
In my spiritual life, the matter of student excuses sits in an ethereal place along with questions such as the nature of evil and what heaven will really be like. It’s beyond me. Living with this unsolvable problem has shaped me, or has the potential to shape me, into a better professor. I’d like to ask for help—from God and from trusted colleagues—with the resentment and impatience that I sometimes hold toward students, and the fatigue that sends those vices spiraling. I’d like to cultivate discernment in all areas of my life, at church and at home, so I have a stronger and more mature self to bring to work. I’d like all the fruits of the spirit to grow in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, if not for these difficulties: patience, kindness, mercy, self-control.
But when it comes down to it, don’t you agree that some excuses seem particularly contrived? Couldn’t this student have dreamed up something a little better than “my boyfriend upset me so much that I cried all night and slept through the test”?
Actually, that one is true. The student was me, in the spring of 1991. My art history professor prayed for me and let me take the test an hour late. That boyfriend was a real jerk.